Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Everything You Know About Fairies Is Wrong: Introducing Twilight of the Godlings

Francis Young

“In th’olde days of the king Arthour
Of which that Britons speaken great honour,
All was this land full fill’d with faerie …”

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath reflects that fairies used to be plentiful in England, but have now been banished by the prayers of friars. Historically, folklorists have been much preoccupied with the decline of belief in fairies, perhaps because the departure of the elves and fairies is itself a recurring theme in English literature, from Chaucer to Tolkien. But the question of where the fairies came from in the first place has been an even more fraught discussion. In the 19th century, the deeply racialist idea that fairy lore was a dim ‘race memory’ of indigenous ‘pygmy’ peoples who once lived in the British Isles became popular, and still sometimes surfaces even today. By the early 20th century, the richness of Irish fairy lore had convinced most folklorists that fairy belief either came from Ireland or belonged to the shared ‘Celtic’ heritage of Ireland and Britain, lost in the mists of time. Then, in the mid-20th century, the leading folklorist Katharine Briggs argued that fairies were, in all likelihood, the half-remembered ancestral spirits of the prehistoric dead. There the argument largely rested – not because everyone agreed with Briggs, but because the meagre evidence seemed to be exhausted and the question lay veiled in mystery, beyond the capacity of historians and folklorists to address it.

Twilight of the Godlings challenges the view that the question of where Britain’s traditional supernatural beings came from is unanswerable, or inaccessible to history; and the book breaks the long silence on this question that has largely prevailed since the 1960s. It does so, in the first instance, by questioning the assumptions adopted by earlier scholars. One of those assumptions is that fairies are a distinct and fairly stable category of supernatural being with definable characteristics; I, on the contrary, argue that the specific characteristics of fairies are mostly unimportant, because they are just one member of a larger family of ‘godlings’ in European religion and folk-belief: ‘small gods’ (to borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett) who rank below the deities worshipped in public cult and stand somewhere between the human and the divine. They are earthly beings, not heavenly; physical, not wholly spiritual. But they are also profoundly ‘other’: not quite human, and possessed of powers beyond our own. Another assumption I reject is that there is anything specifically ‘Celtic’ about fairies. Small gods exist in many cultures, and while constant cultural exchange can of course take place, the small gods of each region have their own distinctive history.

It is always tempting to view folklore as something timeless, and somehow immune from history; a tissue of deep cultural memories embedded in the collective consciousness from time immemorial. The reality, however, is that folklore is constantly on the move and always changing, adapting to new cultural conditions and reconstructing and re-assembling itself. However, certain religious and cultural roles and niches do survive in the longue durée of human history. One of these is the niche for ‘small gods’ – those spirits of nature, fate and destiny that allow human beings in agrarian societies to make sense of the fortunes and misfortunes of everyday life (among other things). The cast of characters may change, but the niche they occupy remains. Thus, for example, the fauns, nymphs, lares and penates, divine Mothers and genii cucullati of Roman Britain occupied this niche two thousand years ago. This does not mean they are the ancestors of the fairies in any straightforward sense, but they were indeed their predecessors.

One of the central mysteries of the study of fairy belief is how and why it survived Christianisation, and whether fairies can be said to be ‘pagan survivals’ in any sense. Central to the argument of Twilight of the Godlings is that the ancestors of fairies were, in all likelihood, culturally constructed in parallel with the process of Christianisation in the early Middle Ages rather than survivors of what came before. While folkloric survival is not impossible, in most cases a careful examination of claimed ‘survivals’ reveals them to be something else; a form of creative reinvention based on contemporary needs and circumstances. While Britain’s fairies are not Christian, therefore, they are largely cultural constructions of a Christian world whose genesis lies in the interaction of elite and popular culture. Twilight of the Godlings attempts to peel back the veil of accreted folklore to reveal the influence of texts like Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies on learned speculations about almost human beings, which in turn filtered down to the level of popular belief.

Medieval folklore, insofar as it can be reconstructed, seems to have reassembled some of the small gods of the pagan Roman past – such as fauns, nymphs, Parcae and heroes – and put them back together, fused with learned speculation about strange races and monsters. This sort of half-understood Classicism merged with popular understandings of beings of Germanic folklore, such as elves, to produce a whole menagerie of supernatural beings before the Norman Conquest. In the later Middle Ages the distinct identities of many of these beings became lost, and ‘elves’ became an imperfectly understood catch-all term which, in the south of England, was replaced in the fourteenth century with a word borrowed from French: fairy. The medieval history of British fairy belief reveals a process of cultural scrambling, forgetting and reinvention rather than survival.

It is not really true, of course, that everything you know about fairies is wrong; your ideas about fairies and fairy lore are as much a legitimate part of the constantly changing stream of folklore as anything else. However, much of what we think we know about the origins of Britain’s fairies is indeed wrong. They are not ‘Celtic’ (I argue that they, are rather, the offspring of Rome), and Irish folklore is of limited usefulness for understanding Britain; they are not pagan (in the sense that they were constructed in parallel with Christianisation); and they are not survivals of a remote historical period, in any meaningful sense. Fairies are characters in the grand drama of popular religion, constructed at need to fulfil the human need for explanation, for mystery, and for magic.

Twilight of the Godlings by Francis Young

About The Author

Francis Young

Francis Young gained a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. One of the UK’s foremost experts in the history and folklo...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!